Easing Transitions to College for Students with Disabilities?

By Kellie Kim (guest blogger)

The transition from high school to postsecondary education and the workplace is particularly challenging for students with disabilities (SWDs). Differences in legal frameworks for K-12 and postsecondary education may contribute to any personal challenges students may face. Unlike the K-12 system, postsecondary institutions are not required to provide the comprehensive and universal access, services, and supports mandated under of the Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). Instead, postsecondary schools are only required to provide “appropriate academic adjustments” that include modifications to instructional delivery or program activities under the Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). There is, in fact, substantial leeway, and in turn great diversity, in how college staff interprets the law, thus leading to variation in the “adjustments” available to SWDs.

Dual enrollment programs, which allow high school students to enroll in college courses for both high school and college credits, may help students with disabilities transition into college and careers.  In dual enrollment programs, SWDs are able to:

  1. Acquire college credits in high schools where SWDs are entitled to receive accommodations: Since the policies and procedures for providing accommodation and support services for SWDs in dual enrollment programs are determined by the location of the courses [1], being able to take college credit courses in high schools may improve SWDs’ likelihood of enrolling in and completing postsecondary programs.
  2. Get early exposure to postsecondary education institutions: The physical location of college courses determines policies and procedures for SWDs [1]. Therefore, for courses offered in postsecondary institutions, SWDs will be required to navigate the institutional policies of postsecondary institutions to secure accommodations and support services as well as physical topography of the campuses. This will provide opportunities for SWDs to develop or enhance self-advocacy skills necessary to persist in postsecondary settings and also help them to get used to the standards and procedures that are unique to each postsecondary institution.
  3. Reduce time and cost for postsecondary degree completion: A 2004 report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) noted that it takes twice as long for SWDs to complete their degrees as their peers without disabilities because they generally need more time for self-care, daily living, and academic tasks [2]. The need for extended time to complete courses implies that the cost of higher education to SWDs becomes higher. They face additional years of room and board costs, semester fees, and the extra costs associated with their disability to make the same academic progress that their peers without disabilities make in a shorter time. They may also be charged more per credit hour or per course if they are taking less than the standard full-time course load. Moreover, it may affect their eligibility for federal student financial aid programs.

Thus, beginning the transition into postsecondary education through dual enrollment programs, and receiving comprehensive and universal access, services, and supports required by IDEA, may help SWDs earn more college credits, degrees, and/or certification. For more information about dual enrollment programs for SWDs, and transition programs for SWDs ages 18-22, please visit the National Secondary Transition Technical Assistance Center at www.nsttac.org.

Guest Author: Kellie Kim is Managing Director, Education Strategies and Applied Research, at Quill Research Associates, LLC. She has extensive experience with projects funded by U.S. Department of Education, focusing on changing instructional practice based on evidence-based interventions and practices for students with disabilities.


Note: This blog post was originally authored under the auspices of the National High School Center at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). The National High School Center’s blog, High School Matters, which ran until March 2013, provided an objective perspective on the latest research, issues, and events that affected high school improvement. The CCRS Center plans to continue relevant work originally developed under the National High School Center grant. National High School Center blog posts that pertain to CCRS Center issues are included on this website as a resource to our stakeholders.


[1] Lord Fairfax Community College. (n.d.). Lord Fairfax Community College dual enrollment handbook 2008-09. Retrieved February 2, 2009, from http://www.lfcc.edu/files/documents/area-of-study/dual-enrollment/08-LFCC-116_dualenrollment_handbook.pdf

[2] Institute for Higher Education Policy [IHEP]. (2004). Higher education opportunities for students with disabilities. Washington, DC: Author.



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